The hardest interview questions ask you to incriminate yourself. Knowing the right way to do that is critical to acing your interview.
I’ve interviewed for many jobs and have often gotten this question, so I always make sure to prepare for it prior to any interview. It’s a good question to get a sense of the interviewee too, so I’ve asked it when I’ve been on the other side of the interview desk.
When I ask it, my version is: “Tell me about a time you made a judgment error. How was it discovered? What did you do to fix the problem?” This question can really help you shine if you answer it right, but it’s also full of pitfalls if it catches you unprepared!
I’ve always been struck by how often people don’t understand the basic premise of the question, so let’s start there. The question is asking for a judgment error, not a mistake.
Forgetting to turn off the lights when you leave for the day is a mistake. Driving while intoxicated is a judgment error. The former is a minor lapse. We’ve all forgotten something at one point. The latter is an lapse in judgment that puts your entire character in question. You are knowingly putting the life of others, as well as your own, at risk.
See the difference? This question is asking you to tell on yourself. The trick is to do so without disqualifying yourself. Here are some do’s and don’ts when answering this question:
- Do give an actual judgment error. It is not helpful to give a small mistake as an example – you’re essentially not answering the question.
- Your judgment error should be somewhat justifiable. Any reasonable person might make the same error had they been in your situation.
- You should have learned something from the experience. (You did, right?) Make sure to share what that is. It lets the interviewer know that you’re not likely to repeat the error.
- Don’t say you’ve never had a judgment error. It doesn’t make you look good, it makes you look dishonest.
- Don’t answer with a judgment error that is so bad no one in their right mind would ever hire you.
- Don’t give an example of a judgment error that you tried to cover it up. No one wants to work with someone who won’t admit when they did something wrong. You should own it immediately so you can fix it right away.
I’ve had people disqualify themselves with this question many times. The majority of the time, it’s because they try to cover up the error. They’ll tell me their error and follow up with something like this:
“I knew I had to fix it before my manager got to work and found out about it.”
What? This is a huge red flag for an interviewer! If you’ve ever worked with someone who won’t admit when they broke something, you’ll know why. You have to spend valuable time discovering the root cause of an issue, only to find out that the person next to you knew all along because they caused it. Not only is it an annoying character trait in any workplace, but it’s made worse in IT because in most workplaces everything is logged. There’s a concept called non-repudiation: logs can show that action x was taken by your user account at time y. Because only you have access to your account, you can’t deny you took the action. If you’ve concealed your error, you’re now in the uncomfortable position of having to admit you concealed it. Or worse, you have to continue to deny it in spite of the proof. Don’t put yourself in that position!
Here is an example of an answer you might give. You’ll of course have to come up with an example from your own life, but I want to walk you through what a good answer might look like.
“One of our sales people brought in his laptop and requested that I swap out his memory. He’d experienced a blue screen of death and had seen the error message: it was an issue with the RAM. He was fairly tech savvy and I was swamped with work, so instead of taking the time to diagnose the issue as I would normally do, I quickly replaced his memory sticks and sent him on his way. Unfortunately, the issue wasn’t with the memory at all. A driver was causing a memory leak. Since I hadn’t re-installed the driver, he blue screened again – this time, it was during a presentation to a potential client. I apologized to him and quickly let my manager know what happened. Luckily for me, the sale still went through, but it could’ve easily gone badly because of me. I learned a valuable lesson that day: take the time to do your due diligence. Short cuts will only end up costing you more time… or worse!”
I like this answer because it shows a small judgment lapse that is understandable; we’ve all taken a shortcut that backfired in the interest of saving time. The answer also shows that you’ve learned something. You’re actually a better employee now because of your error – you’re more careful and methodical. That’s great! You also didn’t try to cover up your error. You admitted it both to the user and to your manager. This shows that you can be trusted to handle the inevitable issues that come up at work in a professional manner.
Do you see how important this question is to prepare thoroughly? Even though it asks you to incriminate yourself, you’ve managed to come out looking professional and methodical with your answer.
Your job now is to come up with your own example from your own work history. If you’ve never worked before, think of an example from school, volunteering, or an internship. Then, look at your example critically and ask yourself these three questions:
- Is my answer an actual judgment error and not a mistake?
- Did I learn something from my experience? Did I include that in my answer?
- Does my answer disqualify me? Was my judgment error so bad that no one in their right mind would ever hire me?
If you answer yes, yes, and no, your answer is probably a good one.
One final tip: I always write out answers to interview questions in bullet point format and study theem every day while I’m actively interviewing. When you think about it, an interview is just another entrance exam. Why not study for it?
With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career with the ultimate goal of achieving financial independence. If it’s your first time visiting this blog, start here. Or, see all my posts about interview questions you should definitely be prepared for.